Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tailoring a narrative to your games

First on the agenda: apparently you can't import a feed into Tumblr anymore. I'm not sure what's up with that. You can import your entire blog into Tumblr but the links to the tool for that are currently down. Kind of annoying.

Anyway, today I'm gonna talk about creating a narrative. I've been getting positive feedback with PnP-related stuff and it's been on my mind lately, but this is probably the last tabletop-related post for a while. One of my friends talked about how she was good at writing, and I snickered a bit because she is terrible at writing. Pretty much any criteria you could use for writing, she'd be bad at. Her mechanics are bad, the stuff she writes is super self-indulgent, and she has no concepts of plot or pacing. I'll come back to this story a bit more later.

When you're creating a narrative for anything, whether writing or gaming or interactive (tabletop) gaming, the first and most important thing you need to dump is your attachment to whatever it is you're writing. I feel like this is why George R. R. Martin is such a fantastic writer, because he isn't in love with the people he writes about. It allows him to create a compelling narrative because the characters feel believable and act believable. Characters don't just act out of turn "because plot." In the Song of Fire and Ice, you really feel like the story just flows and he never has to force things to happen.

That's sort of the problem with narrative is that you create an idea and you fall in love with it. You identify a sequence of events that you want to happen and you create a story around that idea. The problem is that unless that idea is the central point of your story, the rest of your story can easily get tangled up around it. Your idea could just be bad too, but unless you can step back and trash what doesn't work then you're kind of doomed to "because plot."

"Because plot" is really bad in tabletop and you will get some pretty bad feedback regarding it if your player group is at all creative. If you have a story in mind you want to tell, that story better have some if/then statements to cover if the players fail, if they succeed far greater than you would have expected, or if they do a flying leap off the rails and do something you don't expect. If your villain is defeated and you want him to get away, he'd better start running before he runs out of hit points and he'd better be able to make saving throws against CC spells, tear gas, and a huge fighter dude blocking his way. You'd better have contingencies and more importantly, you'd better be ready to have those contingencies get trumped by smart players.

If you're creating a narrative you want as few ridiculous coincidences as possible in your story. Things like having the protagonists meet up is technically a coincidence, but no one thinks twice about it unless it happens in an especially contrived way. If you aren't familiar with Star Ocean 3, there's a part where the main character's escape pod randomly lands on the same planet as a space criminal's escape pod, and then another character's ship lands on that same planet (following the protagonist's distress beacon), but that character is randomly someone important to the plot. If that wasn't bad enough, the group crash-lands on another planet later which ends up being a planet of key significance to the endgame plot, forcing the heroes to return later. There are a lot more ridiculous coincidences in that game and they are all plot-drivers. Really awful.

In the same way, events in your story should flow naturally. When you create characters, you give them motivations and you make those motivations drive those characters into conflicts. This can happen whether you're a DM/GM or just writing a story, interactive or not. Coincidences can happen -- they happen in real life -- but they shouldn't be the key driving forces in your story. Try to limit "because plot" coincidences to one or two at the absolute most. If the good guys get bailed out by luck at just the right time every time, or the bad guys get away due to chance every time, it just feels hackneyed.

The reader/player is attached to the protagonists emotionally, and so their triumphs and failures should be their own. If a bad guy succeeds, it should be because he had a good plan or contingency, or maybe because he just naturally had some advantage that the good guys didn't plan for. In general, when I plan encounters I make my antagonists way ahead of time and just play it as it goes. I scale the overall power level to be comparable to the players but the actual plan for each antagonist is flavored for that character. It's then up to the players to do the work, and depending on the antagonist, he might be able to gather info about the players too and change his plans.

When story events happen, they happen because the story has already been driving towards those things happening. As a writer, you need objectivity. You need to play out plans from multiple perspectives and try to see things in the eyes of other characters. Characters act according to their wants and needs, and people's wants are what ultimately create the narrative of a good story.

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